Federal agents from the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives team have been called in to investigate just how a six-alarm fire in Emeryville ignited on Wednesday, destroying 105 apartments under construction.
In an interview Thursday, Rick Holliday of Holliday Development said the ATF is exploring the possibility that “renegade fireworks” over the long July 4 weekend may have played a role in the 2:30 a.m. Wednesday blaze at his $40 million development project under construction. But that is just one working theory, Holliday said, adding that one of the key interviews will be of his guard who worked overnight and possibly witnessed activity in the area near the time of the fire. Emeryville Police Chief Jennifer Tejada said a security guard reported a break-in on July 3 at the address of the fire, 3838 San Pablo Ave., of tools and hammers, but had no evidence that there was a connection to the blaze.
In a statement, the ATF on Thursday confirmed the agency's involvement, adding that its National Response Team includes veteran special agents, explosives enforcement officers, computer forensic support and others "highly trained in post-blast and fire-origin and cause investigations." The Emeryville investigation is the team's 19th such "activation" this year.
The Alameda County Fire Department is working alongside the ATF, said Deputy Marshal Stan Fernandez. He would not speak about a cause or a motive for the fire.
Holliday met with a crew of engineers and others at Emeryville City Hall on Thursday morning to figure out what his next steps are. He estimated that the damage to the property ranges from $10 million to $20 million in loss.
But he vowed he would rebuild as soon as possible. And despite the massive blaze that wiped out years of planning and work, Holliday was feeling grateful and optimistic.
“I’m just so glad nobody was hurt,” he said, adding that a neighbor texted him at 4 a.m. Wednesday while he was vacationing in Tahoe about the fire. “That was just so stunningly fortunate.”
He also said that there are slices of good news to be eked out among the ashes. The structural integrity of the retail section of what used to be the former Maz glass shop, which he called the “gem” of the mixed-use project, is in “really, really good shape.” He expects the 21,000-square-foot retail area, which will likely be home to include a local brewery and art gallery, could open in January of 2017.
That retail section is underneath a garage, which is underneath the 105 artist lofts that were consumed by fire and deemed a total loss. As for the apartments, Holliday said they could be rebuilt in as few as nine months. The apartments that were under construction are called “The Intersection” and are intended for “creative entrepreneurs to work and network.”
Holliday said a studio might rent for $1,700 and a one-bedroom might rent for $2,200 a month.
As soon as investigators leave, Holliday said it would take “30 days to scrape,” which includes a full razing and cleanup of the site. He estimated it would take five months to reframe the building. “It’s just wood,” he said. And he thought it might take another four months to connect the utilities.
If all goes well, Holliday said, his crews might build it even faster and tenants could begin renting on Labor Day 2017. “We’ve already done it once,” he half joked. “This is just a bump in the road.”